My turn: Of course we can build a road, but should we?

Posted: Wednesday, March 18, 2009

"Give me enough dynamite and snoose, and I'll build a road to hell!"

So said Michael James Heney, the man in charge of constructing the railroad from Skagway over White Pass to the Yukon from 1898 to 1900.

Despite the conclusion of many engineers that it could not be done, Heney and company completed the railroad as far as Lake Bennett in an amazing 13 months. Others have also built roads to seemingly impossible places.

The Alaska Department of Transportation wants to build a road from Echo Cove to the Katzehin River flats, where shuttle ferries will connect to Haines and Skagway. The road would have to pass through, around or over terrain much more formidable than that over White Pass.

Could they do it?

Yes, they could build this road if we give them a blank check and a flexible timetable.

A more important question is: Should we let them build the road? The answer is an emphatic no.

Those of us who oppose the road argue that improved ferry service is a cheaper, safer, more reliable and more environmentally acceptable way to improve access to Juneau than building a road.

I believe the DOT's $350 million estimate to build the road is way too low. This is partly because the exact route through more than 20 miles of the steepest part of the Kakuhan range has not been determined. There is no continuous center line stalked and no indication where tunnels or avalanche sheds would be required. I get the impression that DOT is planning to attach the worst spots using the expensive trial-and-error method. The Golder report states that building the road through the steep areas could cost four times as much as it would in the flat areas.

DOT has hired an independent group to make an unbiased estimate of the cost of the road. I commend them for doing that, and I predict the new estimate will be substantially higher than $350 million.

If one were to characterize this Kakuhan range in one word, it would be that it is steep - it rises from sea level to 6,000 feet in about one mile. That incline is the reason constructing and maintaining a road through it would be so expensive, so difficult and so dangerous. That incline is also the reason this stretch of landscape is so strikingly beautiful with hanging glaciers, avalanche chutes and rock falls most everywhere - raw nature on a rampage.

It is a national treasure, our Yosemite, and it is viewed in awe by about one million people each year from boats or planes. Why would anyone want to deface it with an ugly road, especially when there is a viable alternative?

From 1962 to 1966, former Gov. Frank Murkowski and DOT did everything within their power to marginalize the Marine Highway System and to push for a Lynn Canal highway. Soon after taking office, Gov. Sarah Palin stopped the so-called Pioneer Road and said that the road north would not be a priority of her administration. More recently, she wisely said she wanted to see the result of the lawsuit filed by a coalition of environment groups before making a judgment on the road.

On Feb. 13, Alaska District Court Judge John Sedwick ruled that enhanced ferry service should have been considered in the DOT Environmental Impact Statement as an alternative for improving Juneau access. Judge Sedwick also overturned a federal decision and a U.S. Forest Service permit and issued an injunction barring work on the road until the EIS is revised and new permits are issued.

In recognition of Judge Sedwick's decision and the wishes of the majority of Alaskans, I urge Palin to tell DOT to stop wasting their time and our money on the expensive, dangerous and environmentally disastrous Lynn Canal road project and to use the money set aside for that road to improve the ferry system.

Just because we could build that road doesn't mean we should.

• Richard Gard is a professor of fisheries emeritus and a former fisheries biologist at the Auke Bay Laboratory.

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